Music Notes | Sixth Sunday of Easter

Eric Mellenbruch Associate Director of Music and Organist

Some of the earliest (German) Protestant religious songs were Psalms paraphrased into rhyming syllabic meter, an example being ‘Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir’, a version of Psalm 130 translated in our Hymnal as ‘From deepest woe I cry to thee’ [151]. The French Reformer Jehan Cauvin (John Calvin) heard some of these Psalm-paraphrases being sung at Strasbourg in 1538 and made some French versions, later turning to the work of Clément Marot, a French court poet who had already written a number of versified Psalms. Eventually, after several successive editions adding more texts by Marot and, after his death, by Théodore de Bèze, and tunes written or adapted by several musicians, a complete metrical Psalter was issued in 1562 at Geneva. This Genevan Psalter constituted the only music sung in Calvinist services for centuries, and versions of Psalms made to fit its melodies were written in a number of languages of the areas in which, or the people among whom,  Calvinism spread, including English. (Although the Anglo-Genevan Psalms soon gave way to paraphrases with shorter lines and stanzas and simpler tunes, metrical Psalms were also the only congregational music in Anglican services until the early 19th century.)

Several tunes from the Genevan Psalter are found in the Hymnal 1982, some known by their Psalm numbers (Psalm 6, Psalm 42, Psalm 86, Old 100th, Old 124th), some by the incipit of one of the Psalms for which they were used in the Genevan Psalter (‘Donne secours’, Psalm 12; ‘Rendez à Dieu’, Psalm 98; ‘Louez Dieu’, Psalm 136), one by the number of the Psalm for which it was used in an English-language collection (Old 113th, used for two other Psalms in the Genevan collection), one by the French name of the canticle which it set (Le Cantique de Siméon). All these tunes exhibit common characteristics, some that make them easy to sing (restriction to two note values only; almost entirely syllabic setting; usually a range of an octave conforming to one of the modes of the diatonic, or ‘white-key’, scale), while to varying degrees they also demonstrate some features (long lines, often long stanzas, a variety of meters) that, with a total of 124 tunes, made the Genevan Psalter difficult for congregations to learn when it was introduced all of a piece, especially without leadership from choirs or organs, both of which were forbidden in Calvinist services for a long time.

‘Rendez à Dieu’, which was used for three different Psalms in the Genevan Psalter, is likewise found with three texts in the Hymnal 1982: ‘Bread of the world, in mercy broken’ [301], ‘Father, we thank thee who hast planted’ [302], and ‘New songs of celebration render’ [413], a modern paraphrase of Psalm 98 which we sing this week (note the use of the cognate word ‘render’). It was written by Erik Routley, an important hymnologist, teacher, writer, hymnal editor and hymn proponent, and author of both hymns and hymn-tunes. The tune as printed in the Hymnal with his text ends lines 2, 4, and 8 with a whole note (re-notated for our purposes with a half note + half rest), while the versions at 301 and 302 have only half notes at these points; in the Genevan Psalter, every line of every Psalm ends with the equivalent of a half note + half rest.

Though the Psalms were sung in unison, without instruments, in Calvinist worship services, many composers (including some who wrote or adapted the melodies of the Genevan Psalter) wrote polyphonic settings of them for domestic or other use. These include both settings like those found in the Hymnal, in which all voices move together in the same rhythms, and contrapuntal settings, which still often feature the melody unchanged in one voice while the others sing or play imitative or motivic material. Though some of the most elaborate of these require a top-notch professional ensemble, others find a welcome place in the repertory of church choirs such as our own. 

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